The problem with comic book films is that once the filmmakers decide to distance themselves from the source material, a necessary step that all films face upon adaptation, the core audience immediately goes on the defense. Pleasing said fans is always a difficult task. Ghost Rider, then, succeeds on the level that it is a fun, comic book film. However, placed against some its more successful contemporaries, the campy nature of Ghost Rider is also its chief detractor.
The Marvel Comics anti-hero Ghost Rider got his start in Marvel Spotlight #5 in 1972 and the film’s origin resembles the comicbook tale close enough: motorcyclist Johnny Blaze makes a deal with the devil transforming him, at times, to be an fiery instrument of vengeance. Marvel revamped and updated the character in 1990 completing the skull-like visage with a flaming chain and spikes. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson takes elements from the classic story and incorporates it with the styles of the more modern version in an attempt to please both worlds.
Opening with an origin that crawls throughout the entire first – and lengthy – act, the film finally roars into action as the damned Blaze (Nic Cage) fights against the devil’s son, Blackheart (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley) and his demonic horde. Bentley pulls off acting the rogue with a smile but at times he and his cronies’ post-Matrix get-up have all the posturing of an upstart emo band. Even Cage and Sam Elliott, playing his mentor, camp it up at times playing mere parodies of themselves. Topping off the cast is the ultimate Easy Rider, Peter Fonda, playing a laughably-scary devil with a grin-and-a-wink that seems to channel Jack Nicholson.
Once the action begins, the film pits the flaming Ghost Rider up against elemental demons and, predictably, the police. And like all cliché Westerns or their rock-n-roll, comicbook counterparts, there seems to be nothing his American Chopper-possessed bike cannot do, which even comes to his side when whistled for like a loyal steed.
What the film desperately lacks is any sense of a real and natural environment. Story aside, what made the Spider-Man and X-Men films successful is the fact that these unreal events were happening in the world right outside the window. Here, the humor – both intended and ridiculous – prevents that barrier from ever entirely withdrawing. Another impediment is the film’s rating. Taking a similar path to the Blade films and first Crow, Marvel should have pushed for a R rating to truly give the devil his due. More dark horror and less toothy one-liners would have made for an electrifying film, something that video game-looking ghosts and goblins cannot properly achieve.
At best, Ghost Rider is a b-grade superhero; his film falls into the same classification. But true fans should already be aware of this. After all, boyhood fantasies of a flaming skull warrior on a tricked out bike can only go so far. This film meets you half the way.